Helping your Teen Adjust to a Regular Sleep Schedule

Now's the time to get your teen on track for back to school

Helping your teen adjust to a regular sleep schedule

Illustration by Tyson Smith

It’s a typical school morning at Maria D’alessandro’s Woodbridge, Ont. home, as her three boys communicate in grunts while she tries to herd them out the door on time.

“They drag their knuckles down the stairs. They’re troglodytes. They haven’t evolved yet,” laughs D’alessandro.

Mornings and teens have never really mixed, but now that summer is over, many will be battling to revert to their school-year sleep schedule. So how do you get your child on track while preserving your sanity?

D’alessandro’s strategy for Mark, 19, Robert, 16 and Daniel, 12, can be summed up in one word: routine. “Kids need routine. They will deny it. They’ll say, “I can go to bed when I want. I can get up.’ Yeah, right,” she says.

More Than Just Tired

According to adolescent sleep experts and psychologists, D’alessandro knows what she’s talking about.

“Parents have a lot of wisdom intuitively about how to deal with this and we don’t always trust our instincts,” says Delta, B.C., psychologist Judith Bertoia, who counsels many adolescents and their families.

A good first step to morning calm, suggests Bertoia, is to rule out health problems such as depression, mono, side effects from prescription drugs, or less often, abuse of street drugs. Consider also whether your teen is having academic or social problems that make him less than enthusiastic about getting up for school. “Why would they want to get up to go to a bad experience?” asks Bertoia. If your teen can get up at 5 a.m. for hockey practice, but not at 7 a.m. for school, you may want to investigate.

Next take a look at family dynamics — are you as a parent stressed about your job, commute or finances, and are you communicating this stress to your children, making them less cooperative? “Nothing helps a bad mood like sharing it with someone else,” she notes. But more than anything else, advises Bertoia, figure out if your teen is sleep-deprived.

Read more: The Real Sleep Needs of Teens—When to Wake Them, and When to Let Them Slumber

Night Owls

Dr. Manisha Witmans, a pediatric sleep expert at Stollery Children’s Hospital in Edmonton, heartily agrees, pointing out that sleep patterns change at adolescence.

Teens get sleepy later and don’t wake as early as they did as young children. While doctors don’t know exactly why this happens, they suspect it’s linked to the growth spurt and hormonal changes associated with puberty. Relative to younger children, sleep onset in adolescents is delayed by one to two hours, says Dr. Witmans. There’s even a related medical phenomenon known as delayed sleep phase syndrome. Symptoms include difficulty falling asleep at night, difficulty getting up in the morning, and a resulting negative impact on well-being and ability to function during waking hours. While common, it doesn’t affect every teen.

On average, teens need a total of eight and a half hours of sleep a night, a number few manage to achieve, according to a recent study. Last year, researchers at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ont. surveyed 2,201 high school students, and found that more than half got less than 8.5 hours on a typical weeknight. More than half of the students surveyed reported being “really sleepy” between 8 a.m. and 10 a.m.

Getting More Zzz’s

Parents can help their teens by encouraging regular bedtimes, physical activity during the day, no TV, cell phones or computers late at night, limiting caffeine, and insisting that part-time jobs end early in the evening, advises Dr. Witmans. “Kids shouldn’t be working till 10 or 11 at night,” she says.

And while your teen may make up sleep debt on the weekends, she shouldn’t sleep in too late. Some negotiation is acceptable for bedtimes and wake-up times, but adolescents still need guidelines on the best amount of shut-eye.

In fact, it takes about 16 hours of wakefulness for the body to ready itself for sleep. And 16 hours after noon is not 11 p.m.

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